In August 2011, Derek Sheely, a Division III football player, died from brain trauma after re-opening a head wound four times in three days of full-contact practice. He had complained about headaches to coaches, but they ignored him, according to news reports. One coach allegedly went as far as telling him, “Stop your bitching and moaning and quit acting like a pussy and get back out there Sheely!"
The extent to which football’s tough guy culture hampers injury treatment and prevention has been hotly criticized in recent years, especially in light of repeated reports of the lasting physical damage the sport's players suffer. Safety advocates often focus on beefing up regulations, but a new study suggests there is another major factor that influences the game’s health standards: sports media.
In the journal Communication & Sport, researchers analyzed news coverage of two recent NFL knee injuries: Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s 2011 MCL sprain and Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III’s 2013 ACL tear. Cutler sat out the remainder of a championship game after he was hurt; Griffin played on. The researchers wanted to see if the news articles reflected the common coaching sentiment that toughing things out is more admirable than playing things safe.
"Sitting out during an injury is often viewed as weak and lacking the requisite toughness demanded by football, whereas playing through an injury is often viewed as the action of a warrior who embodies the ethos of sport."
"Sitting out during an injury is often viewed as weak and lacking the requisite toughness demanded by football, whereas playing through an injury is often viewed as the action of a warrior who embodies the ethos of sport," Melinda Weathers, one of the study's authors, explains in a press release.
By dividing 177 articles from publications including the New York Times and the Washington Post into 11 distinct positions on the two players’ actions—views like “Cutler as a sissy,” “Cutler as a sympathetic figure,” “blaming Griffin,” and “Griffin as a hero”—Weathers and her team found that just about half the articles about Cutler supported his removal from the game, while a third considered him a quitter. More than half the articles about Griffin, meanwhile, blamed the team or him for his injury, while only 10 percent cast him as a hero.
These results surprised the researchers because previous studies have shown that sports journalists tend to glorify sacrifice. The researchers say this could be a bright sign. “It was refreshing to see support as the predominant frame,” they write about Cutler, speculating that the articles' prevailing praise of caution may “signal a shift that sports journalists are becoming more aware of the serious nature of sports injuries and adjusting their attitudes accordingly.”
They acknowledge the study has major limitations. No long-term data and a small sample size of injured players prevents any defensible generalizations about media's shifting attitudes toward football injuries. But still, the researchers contend, the analysis is a necessary first step in understanding how sports coverage can influence fans' perspectives and professional players' decisions when it comes to safety.
Attitudes may shift "as sports journalists take more of an advocacy role and support athletes who make their health a priority," Jimmy Sanderson, the study's lead author, says in the release.